China: New Life for Historical Sites and Local Communities

November 23, 2015

The Great Wall starts from the coast of the Bohai Sea, runs more than 8,000 kilometers along north China and ends at the Jiayuguan Pass, in China’s far west province of Gansu.

Jiayuguan Pass faces the west, the Gobi desert and what was then seen as the uncivilized world. The wall ends with an imposing tower, considered the most magnificent military fortress along the Great Wall.

Built in 1372, the fortress stood for more than 600 years – its tower and surrounding ancient buildings deteriorating with time – until a conservation project was implemented.

“Part of the wood structure had decayed, deformed; joints loosened and paint peeled,” said Yan Qun, deputy director of the Jiayuguan Heritage Site Management Committee. “Now all these problems have been addressed. Jiayuguan has its grandiose look of the old days back,” he says.

" Before, there was nothing, but now our scenic sites are well equipped and have a lot to offer visitors. "

Gao Haiyan

Singer of Qingcheng Ballads

Jiayuguan’s conservation was part of a World Bank-supported project aimed at protecting Gansu’s cultural and natural heritage and developing a sustainable tourism industry.

Gansu has a rich endowment of cultural and natural relics, many of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage list and China’s state relics list. In addition to Jiayuguan, the project included several other historical sites on the Silk Road; parks with stunning geological formations; grottos with breathtaking Buddha statues and murals; old towns, temples and tombs.

The remote Gansu is also one China’s poorest provinces. A harsh natural environment and distance from the coast has kept it largely isolated from the rapid development seen in most other regions of the country. In 2014, its per capita GDP was $4,150, far below the national average of $7,500.

Budget constraints and a lack of expertise in heritage conservation and tourism development also hindered Gansu’s development. In recent years, the province attracted only 1 in every 176 international tourists and 1 in every 113 domestic tourists in China.

That changed since the project was launched in 2008 and covered nine cultural and natural heritage sites in six cities across the province. Much-needed infrastructure was built and historic buildings and cultural relics were restored; government institutions received assistance to plan and coordinate heritage conservation and tourism development; and training on heritage conservation, management, tourism product design and business skills was also provided to staff at tourist sites and to local residents.

All of these improvements have yielded remarkable progress: tourism to the nine sites covered by the project grew 15%-36% a year, resulting in a 10%-40% increase in annual tourism revenues. Tourist satisfaction has also substantially improved, with the number of people working at project-supported sites almost quadrupling in the past seven years.

Li Wanrong, a farmer from a village not far from the Jiayuguan Pass, jumped at the chance to open a homestay offering food and lodging to tourists. Along with other farmers, he participated in a business skills training organized by the project. Today, he is able to welcome up to 50 people a day during peak tourism season. His annual revenue ranges from $20,000-$30,000, “many times more than what we earned from farming,” he says.

Wanrong’s story is not unique: thanks to improved infrastructure and training, homestay businesses multiplied around the Maijishan Grotto site. Houchuan Village alone boasts 70 homestays today, up from only two in 2004, and was named "China's most attractive leisure village" in 2011.

Beyond increased revenues and businesses, the Director of the Gansu Project Management Office, Ning Xiaoli, believes the province will benefit in the long-term from this new expertise. “It brought to us new concepts in development, conservation and management,” she said, adding that the project has become a model case contributing to the development of other cultural tourism projects in the province.

Gao Haiyan benefited from the project in a different way: she performs local folk ballads for tourists in the City God’s Temple in Qingcheng, a historic town east of the provincial capital city Lanzhou. Gao’s family has passed down the Qingcheng ballads for 18 generations.

The restoration of the ancient town of Qingcheng and its folklore culture made Gao, a migrant worker outside Gansu, return to the city and join the fledgling tourism sector.

Now she earns about $300 a month, “very high by local standards,” she notes. As a native of Qingcheng, Gao is also very proud of the changes in her hometown. “Before, there was nothing, but now our scenic sites are well equipped and have a lot to offer visitors,” she said.